Editor’s Note: Some time ago I asked one of my permaculture contacts in Syria if they could give us some reports, with their particular on-the-ground views on the ongoing crisis there. I did so in the hope of our gaining a more rounded back-story viewpoint. With the mainstream media largely owned and controlled by vested interests, I think it’s critical that websites such as this one can be used as a platform upon which to share the opinions of everyday people on the ground in these tragic situations. I also think you’ll find this first report very interesting. Please be advised that the author’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
Internal and external displacement is one of the many striking features of the Syrian war. While media focus lies on external displacement, internal displacement is not less important.
Social trends prevailing here add to the tragedy of displacement: Despite the high real-estate prices, Syrians tend to own their own homes. They invest a lot of money in purchasing, decorating and furnishing their houses, therefore losing a house can be as harsh as losing lives. Additionally, Syrians usually have deep roots in the areas they live in. a family may inhabit the same area for generations. In some cases they start small businesses where they live to reduce travel costs. So when violent conflict started, many people lost not only their homes but also their sources of income.
I live in Damascus. Almost all the towns around Damascus city, called ‘Rural Damascus’, were affected. The people who live(d) there are mostly in the medium to low income bracket. Some left their houses carrying only the clothes they wore, while some had time to collect at least some of their stuff. When fragile truces were announced between the fighting sides, many people attempted to visit their houses and shops to rescue other items, exposing themselves to sniper attacks. Some have lost their lives in such attempts.
To relocate, people use various ways depending on their economic power. Leaving Syria to settle down in neighboring countries was the option for those with good resources and/or good skills. The increased demand for renting houses inside Damascus or in safe areas increased rent rates to levels beyond the capacity of many people, however there were still kind hearted people who pushed to keep rates at a reasonable level. Some were lucky enough to have a relative or a friend who offered them their house as a temporary solution. In other cases young men and women returned to their family houses. Many young couples I know live separated — each with his/her respective families. It’s commonly said that every family in Damascus is now either displaced or hosting displaced people.
The above solutions were not enough to absorb the huge numbers of displaced people, especially from the more vulnerable and low income sectors. The government refused to build refugee camps inside Syria, instead providing many places to become temporary shelters — including schools and unused government or residential buildings. Schools that are not used as shelters now operate in two shifts to fulfill regular education needs.
Two days ago, for example, 3000 people, mainly women and children, were evacuated from a very hot conflict area in Damascus’ surrounds and placed in a government education complex close to where I live. They were under siege for about a year — some of them said that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) kept them there as human shields — and were evacuated after negotiations with both sides.
All international and civil society organizations became active in providing for the various needs of displaced people, including food, clothes, kitchen sets, hygiene tools, and winter items like blankets. A vibrant and amazing work was done mainly by NGOs and volunteers to provide all types of aid, not only to people in shelters but to all those who are in need.
Either in shelters, or in rented houses, or with relatives, displaced people are leading a temporary life — waiting impatiently for the moment when they can return to their homes, to their roots.
I have started by describing the general framework of my story, in which I will weave in more details later. The text below is just an attempt to tell another side of the story, to add another perspective on how the story looks from the inside. But it’s definitely not the full story and you have to add what you already know to it. I hope you will excuse my beginner’s journalistic and storytelling abilities….
Allow me to start by telling you something about how Syria was before the war.
Most people in the west only know of Syria as a “pariah" or "a rouge state”, according to the US. However life inside Syria was so beautiful, peaceful and diversified. During the past decade, the country enjoyed political stability and relative economic openness, while a few essential reforms were introduced, like the elimination of martial law, and allowing private banks, newspapers and media to operate. This all created an encouraging environment for micro and small businesses, civil society and NGOs, agricultural projects…, etc. Taking into consideration a very small foreign debt, and independence from the IMF, World Bank, and multinational corporations, Syria enjoyed a good deal of independence and self-sufficiency. Syria was increasingly highlighted in some western media as a country with great potential for investment and business. Many articles appeared in prominent newspapers, like The Independent, NY Times and others, describing the “road to Damascus” as a journey into a dream land.
It’s also important to mention that Syria enjoys a wide diversity of ethnic and religious groups — Arab 90.3%, Kurds, Armenians, and other 9.7%. Religions: Sunni Muslim 74%, other Muslim (includes Alawite, Druze) 16%, Christian 10%, and some tiny Jewish communities — however no sectarian tension was evident, at least not explicitly, and the Syrian government announced many times that Syria is a secular state.
However, underneath this peaceful surface lied serious undermining factors including deeply rooted corruption, domination by the military and intelligence forces of media and political life, imbalanced development patterns between rural and urban areas, which created poverty belts around main cities. These shortcomings provided the gaps through which the tide of the "Arab Spring” penetrated.
For example, the poverty belt and poor marginalized areas became easy targets for extremist Islamic scholars who took advantage of the absence of governmental control and weak educational system to spread fundamentalist Islamic teaching.
Influenced by the images of the Arab spring, peaceful demonstrations started with innocent claims like freedom, releasing political prisoners, media independence, raising the state of emergency… etc, only to develop into armed clashes and then quickly into civil war. But why and how did this happen?
Let’s remember that in 2006 the US administration talked about the "New Middle East", a project which aims to reshape the map of the Middle East in accordance with the geo-strategic needs and objectives of the US and its allies.
However, to avoid going into too much political detail here, it can be said in brief that the struggle over Syria has a lot to do with securing gas and oil interests. While many governments are directly or indirectly involved in this struggle, however, on the side supporting the rebels, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — the Arab gas and oil giants — are playing the leading role. Both countries are investing huge funds to support regime change in Syria.
It happens that the Saudi-based news channel (Al Arabia) and the prominent Qatari news network (Al Jazeera) are the leading news channels that direct public opinion in the Arab world. The two networks gained extra credibility when they promoted themselves as the people’s media by taking the side of revolutionaries in Arab Spring countries against toppled regimes. The same stance was taken in Syria from day one of the unrest. They worked as a powerful weapon for mobilizing public support inside Syria to the side of the “revolution” — protests were exaggerated in number and spread, any violent act was highlighted and immediately attributed to regime forces, and a very provocative tone was and is always used when covering the Syrian crisis. One clear example is the faked little protests where a few dozen young people would gather in a main street and start a protest for only a few minutes, only to get that on camera, and scatter before the police forces arrive. These little pieces of footage were sold to Al Jazeera for a very high price. While of course many demonstrations were real, these fake protests were done to give a false impression about the spread of protests and to encourage more activity.
It is also interesting to note that a few years before the crisis there was an increase in numbers of Islamist satellite channels that were trying to spread a rather extreme type of Islam. A bundle of channels in particular were mainly dedicated towards increasing Sunni hatred towards Shia Muslims, especially in Iraq and Syria. Soon after the Syrian crisis started, these channels quickly aligned themselves with the “revolution” as if they owned it and called for Jihad against the “infidel Shia-supported regime". Not surprisingly, most of their audience became fanatic supporters of the revolution and many joined the rebel army.
As public opinion was shaped, armed elements started to organize themselves and take over some positions in heavily populated areas, especially where they managed to use religious affiliation of people to gain their support. At some point they started attacking police stations and security forces, which called for a response from security and army forces. This response came late, giving insurgents enough time to expand and receive arms. The insurgents also used long underground tunnels to link between the areas they took over. This fact was used later by official Syrian media to prove that this insurgency was prepared for long before it actually started.
By dragging the fighting into civilian areas, it was easy to market the image of a regime using military power to silence protests and to further suppress people and prevent them from rejecting its power. On the other side, the justification from the Syrian Army for this intervention was that it’s about defending the country against insurgents and intruders.
Another type of support the rebels received was calling Islamic fighters (Jihadists) from all over the world to take part in “liberating” the Syrian people. These open calls for Jihad can until now still be heard in many media channels, especially Islamic ones.
Apart from those directly involved in the fighting, Syrian society is sharply polarized between extreme regime supporters, and extreme revolutionists who demand nothing less than toppling of the regime. Between both lies the "silent majority", who are taking no sides and are only interested in peace and reforms but not necessarily regime change. It can be said, therefore, that regime change is not a public demand, but rather a political demand by those parties who originally invested huge resources toward it.
After two and a half years of fighting, it can be said that the “revolution” lost a lot of its popularity among Syrians for many reasons:
- The fragmentation and unpopularity of its political front (the 5-star-hotel opposition as we call them) who were actually hand-picked and funded by foreign intelligence and then called legitimate representatives of the Syrian people!
- Its clear Islamic and sectarian nature which is evident in the speech of their formal media channels, the names of their legions, and the way they run the areas under their control, where civil authorities are replaced by a religious body. It’s like replacing the dictatorship of party with one of religion. The second is far worse because it allegedly speaks in the name of God and gives itself the right to interfere in everything including the way women dress and how people practice their rituals, as in Saudi Arabia.
- Their strong affiliation with Jihadists and Al Qaida-linked groups, which makes them look like a foreign occupation rather than a public movement.
- The fighting tactics which endangered lives and property of civilians by dragging the fighting into civilian areas, instead of protecting people as they claim.
- The rigid, narrow-minded, and hatred-filled speech.
A very alarming development took place recently with armed groups launching deadly attacks on each other to claim more land on the ground. For example Jihadist groups like the Islamic State in Sham (Syria) and Iraq and Jabhat al Nusra are turning against the Free Syrian Army in many areas in the North and middle regions of Syria.
And while struggling parties are defending their interests, the people are the ones who are paying the price with their blood and property: more than 100,000 Syrians lost their lives, over 6.2 million have been torn from their homes, the industry, agriculture, and trade collapsed, half of the population lost their source of income, infrastructure is devastated, and atrocities beyond description were committed. The world was engaged in the debate on who used chemical weapons, but they miss the fact that innocent people — men, women and children — were killed and are being killed every day, whether by chemical or conventional weapons, and in a sane world this should be enough reason to stop this war at any cost, not keep it going at any cost.
I have highlighted only parts of the story which I thought are not usually covered in mainstream media, to make ground for conclusions:
As in all Arab Spring countries, Syria had a lot of internal issues and problems including poverty, corruption, and lack of democracy, where governments serve the interest of the ruling elite instead of the people, but the same issues exist in many countries around the world too. Demonstrations, going into the streets, and calling for regime change has brought nothing but catastrophic results so far: the spring countries lost the stability they enjoyed under their dictators and for no real gains. Political powers used people’s demands for reforms to pursue their own agenda.
In Syria the price was a lot heavier. This instability opened the door very wide for foreign intervention from all sides, adding to the complexity of the scene. This intervention has so far helped only in prolonging the war and increasing its severity in order to achieve political gain, while claiming that sending more weapons is going to bring peace!
Those who want to hold others accountable for the alleged use of chemical weapons should themselves be first held accountable for the use of all types of forbidden weapons — including chemical, phosphorous and depleted uranium — that killed and deformed millions of children in Iraq.
The American threat of using power against the Syrian regime seems to be no more than a media game to direct public opinion in a certain direction. People around the world showed clear anti-war sentiment, while people inside Syria started to realize that Syria, not the regime, is the one being targeted. The support from the rebel’s side for an American strike made them look more like traitors in the eyes of Syrians. The political activity that took place afterwards indicates that the move was perhaps used for preparing the stage for a political settlement. Of course we only see the external layer of what’s going on through the narrow lenses of the media.
Media played the biggest role in polarizing people: you’re either against or pro, and each side is willing to smash the other either in words or deeds. The media displays great power and ability to lead people into a self-destructive path, without thinking. We cannot speak of real democracy when mass media is allowed to shape public opinion in the world according to the interest of those who own the media.
This war is full of lessons that need to be learnt well by all those who seek peace in this world. It’s also full of stories, not only of death and horrible deeds, but of life — of people helping each other, of people trying to restore pieces of their fragmented lives, people trying to make peace and to bring all parties together, away from arms, and people dreaming of and planning for a new Syria. I hope to share some of this ‘news’ soon.